Parenting a Child With Mental Illness: What Can We Learn from Newtown, Connecticut?
Janice Goldwater, LCSW-C, Executive Director
This season, as we slow down and focus on family, we appreciate the chance to connect with those we love and celebrate our holiday traditions in warmth and safety.
Unfortunately, many families in Newtown, Connecticut and beyond won’t have that feeling of safety. Contemplating the horrific circumstances of this tragedy is overwhelming. Many are asking why and how this could happen, and what would motivate a human being to take the lives of innocent people in this way. The enormity and long term impact of this situation are incomprehensible. Our thoughts and hearts go out to all of the families who have lost so much. Interestingly, many have placed blame on the perpetrator’s mother; in fact, so much so that her life has not been counted in the tragic loss. The number 26 we all hear does not include her.
Instead of blaming his mother for what she did or did not do, perhaps the focus should be on empathy, understanding and most of all, adequate services and supports for parents who are struggling to raise children with mental illness. Across the financial spectrum, most parents are decent human beings who have worked hard to create stability, enhance health and well-being, and have invested their hearts and souls to help their child get well. Even for those with financial resources and access to every level of care, there is still fear, desperation and few options to turn for help.
Parenting a child with mental illness in our society is not easy, and it still carries a tremendous amount of stigma and shame. From the worker on the county phone crisis line who suggests calling him back when things have calmed down, to the police officer who tells a parent to just use a firmer hand, to the teacher who accuses the parent of not being involved enough, the challenges of living with and responding to mental illness are misunderstood, and resources for help are sorely lacking. With very few treatment facilities, huge barriers to accessing them, and tremendous costs, only the most motivated and resourced are able to get help. As a loving parent, imagine what it would feel like to witness your child struggling, knowing that you were powerless to get your child the help they need. For young adults (transitioning age adults) this lack of available services is even more pronounced. Because this is so hard, many are unable to find the help they need, and tragedies like Sandy Hook will continue to happen.
We will never know what it was like to be Adam Lanza’s mother. What we do know is that until we acknowledge and embrace the critical needs of our community members and provide accessible, affordable and competent services, we all remain at risk for tragedies like this to happen again. While the debate over stricter gun control laws rages on, the issue of adequate mental health care in our society continues to take a back seat. Now is the time to invest in a stronger safety net for those who need it most.